Is Herculaneum smaller and less famous than Pompeii? Yes. But is it worth visiting? Absolutely yes! Here we gathered some strong points to prove it. Although only an actual walking tour of the ruins of Herculaneum would be the ultimate proof. Visit this remarkably well-preserved Roman town at the foot of Mount Vesuvius and learn about its life and death in the days when it was a well-known seaside resort, trading port and home to some 4000 residents.
- Getting to Herculaneum
- City of Herculaneum/Ercolano
- Tickets and opening times
- Map of Herculaneum
- Herculaneum or Pompeii?
Getting to Herculaneum
Tours of Herculaneum generally start from Naples, most of the times from the port which is the main gate to the city for day visitors. Getting to the ruins of Herculaneum from Naples takes roughly 20-25 minutes. You begin with an incredibly uneven stone paved road in Naples and end with a smooth drive on a highway. If you decide to start your tour from Sorrento or Salerno instead, getting to Herculaneum requires roughly 1 hour.
City of Herculaneum/Ercolano
For those who don’t know what to expect from a visit to the ancient Herculaneum, the archaeological site is located inside an actual town called Ercolano built on the volcanic material left by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the ancient city of Herculaneum, from which the present name is derived.
The excavated area of Herculaneum consists of only one quarter of the entire ancient town because the rest still lies beneath modern Ercolano. The ground level of the ancient Roman town is 14 meters (45 feet) lower than the current level of the modern town. So when you are visiting the site, you are presented with a sort of deep wide pit containing ancient buildings and ruins right in the middle of the not-so-modern houses of the modern seaside Ercolano. This site formation is due to the deep layer of solidified mud, lava and other volcanic material that buried this renowned Roman resort city during the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 and later in 1631 after a long era of inactivity. Even though the excavation area is below the ground level of the modern city of Herculaneum, you can still see the volcano that once destroyed the area all around and altered the geography in such a dramatic way.
Tickets and opening times
11 Euros is the entrance fee per person. There is free admission for people under 18. For European Union members between 18 and 24 years the entry fee is 5.5 Euros.
Next to the ticket counter, there is a stand where you can get a free Herculaneum map and a brief Herculaneum guide book.
08.30 – 17.00 from 1 November to 31 March
08.30 – 19.30 from 1 April to 31 October
Last admission: 1.5 hours before the closing time.
Closure days: 1 January, 1 May, 25 December
How long to spend at Herculaneum? A thorough visit requires 1.5 — 2 hours at most. Allowing this time for yourself will ensure almost a full coverage of the ruins currently open to public (some buildings are permanently closed for preservation purposes, others just temporary for restoration).
After paying for your ticket and entering the excavation site, the first thing you get in front of your eyes is the complete overview of the ruins. This vantage point of view provides a complete picture of the town, its 3 different levels, the arrangement of the streets in a grid pattern, the multi-storey buildings.
From atop you will also get the best view of several dozen skeletons, the remains of the last inhabitants killed by intense heat of the hot ash, despite being sheltered inside boat houses on the then seashore.
After this overview, you will descend to that very seashore through a long tunnel excavated in the thick layer of volcanic material that covered all the surrounding are. When Herculaneum was discovered in 1710, the excavation was so difficult and slow that it was continuously interrupted in favor of the easier excavation of Pompeii. Nevertheless, that very type of volcanic material the so-called pyroclastic surge – a low density mass of gas and rock – made it possible to better preserve not just the buildings that still retain their upper floors, but also wooden artifacts (carbonized stairs, doors, ceiling beams and furniture), as well as more delicate items, such as clothing and food.
While wandering through the streets of Herculaneum, you are offered a unique chance to glimpse into the private lives of the Romans, walk on the same sidewalks and marble floors they walked on, see the very same mosaics and frescoes they had before their eye for years…
Bathing was one of the most common daily activities in Roman culture. Thermae were large bath complexes, resembling the modern-day thermal spas. The baths in Herculaneum have separate buildings for men and women, which was a common practice. The various parts of the bathing ritual (undressing, bathing, sweating, receiving a massage and resting), required separate rooms which the Romans built to accommodate those functions. As the then bather, you will first enter the waiting room, then visit the apodyterium — a changing room where you would store your clothes, next you will walk into the tepidarium – the warming room used also for massages and scraping, and finally the caldarium – the hot room heated by a furnace and containing a cold-water pool. The vaulted ceiling and especially the floor mosaics are exceptionally well-preserved.
House of Neptune and Amphitrite
The house welcomes you with a wine shop facing the street where you can see carbonized shelves and almost intact amphorae. As you enter the house and look up, you can see a corner of a bed on the upper floor that inexplicably survived the violent burial of the town. As you proceed straight, you stumble upon triclinium – a summer dining room with three couches arranged around a place for serving food. The mosaic on the wall in front of you is the one that gives the name to this house. Its beauty, almost unimpaired condition and colors are striking. It is second to none of the mosaics both in Herculaneum and Pompeii.
House of the Wooden Partition
Besides being one of the most sophisticated and biggest houses in the area, it is worth visiting especially for the unique artifact – the wooden partition. It is made of 8 wooden panels that are almost in perfect conditions, besides being carbonized, and they acted as an elegant separation between the main hall and the central room.
College of the Augustales
The building was a center of the cult of the Emperor Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. The small shrine is the main attraction of this building and its walls offer frescoes depicting Hercules – the mythical founder of the city. These artful frescoes are admirable for at least one thing – they retained their original Pompeian red color.
Water supply system
The Roman plumbing systems were among the most advanced in the world and were considered an essential part of the city structures. In fact, their water supply systems were so advanced that no one had anything else better until 1800s. However, only the richest houses in Herculaneum got a private access to the running water. And it was done using lead pipes and joints that still today you can see on the sidewalks of Herculaneum. Together with public fountains and a system of drains and sewers, they are an impressive evidence of a very advanced ancient water infrastructure.
Map of Herculaneum
Herculaneum or Pompeii?
Herculaneum vs Pompeii. Which one is better? Which one to visit? A tour of Herculaneum offers more in terms of variety of artifacts – skeletons, pottery, integral mosaics and even intact doors and furniture – and architectural style (e.g. complete buildings, multi-storey houses with balconies) than a visit to Pompeii of the same duration. For instance, if you are planning to visit 2 or 3 destinations in one day and one of them is either Herculaneum or Pompeii and you have some time constrains (let’s say you arrive on a cruise ship to Naples or Salerno in the morning and you leave in the evening) then your best choice of the archaeological site is Herculaneum. Here are just some more advantages:
– Herculaneum is more compact than Pompeii. The uncovered area is 8 times smaller.
– Herculaneum has significantly less visitors (7.5 times less than Pompeii) which ensures you a more relaxed visit.
– There are no long queues at the ticket office in Herculaneum, which is not always the case in Pompeii.
– Rest room facilities, water fountains and one small café are all closer in Herculaneum than in Pompeii.
In conclusion, our customers who opted for Herculaneum over Pompeii were very happy with their decision.
Combining Mount Vesuvius and Herculaneum in a full day tour is a very smart choice as it takes only 25 minutes to drive between them. By doing so, you get to see both the majestic volcano and the summer resort town that it destroyed in such unique way that nowadays travelers, history enthusiasts and visitors can all access and see a one-of-a-kind 2000 year old snapshot of antiquity.